Even disregarding the spam and notes from friends, chances are you get too much e-mail at the office. Trying to save it all can be daunting, and for a small business this can add up to cost in both time and resources. And while it might be easy to delete those unwanted solicitations for Viagra, saving business legitimate communications isn't just a good idea -- it might even be required.

'It depends on the policy of the company and the industry,' says Vivian Gopico-Tero, senior research analyst of compliance infrastructure at research firm IDC. She says that e-mail archiving has historically been used to address system storage space, and depending on company and federal rules, some individuals may have to save virtually all e-mail.

Goouci-Tero says there are issues to consider, including those on the operational side in regards to management policies, as well as the legal compliance side. 'These are not independent of each other.'

Advantages of in-house and off-site e-mail storage

Archiving of e-mail can help a business, should it find itself in hot water. 'It's certainly true that many businesses have to adhere to specific governmental regulations with regard to document retention, and this can include not just email but also instant messaging,' says Mitch Tulloch, of Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) and lead author of the Windows Vista Resource Kit from Microsoft Press. 'With the recent amendments to the U.S. Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), businesses in non-regulatory situations however are realizing more and more the risk of not archiving their e-mail since legal discovery events typically extend to e-mail and other forms of messaging. The best approach may simply be to save everything except spam for a certain number of days. In most cases that seems sufficient for evidentiary purposes.'

There are multiple methods for archiving of e-mail, including using an additional server to house the data. This could also include backing up to disk, and even after a certain amount of time to tape. In these cases a business would have to worry less about the theft or loss of any private or sensitive data by a third party.

The other option would be to archive e-mail to a hosted service provider. 'Hosted service may cost more in ‘hard dollars,'" says Tulloch. "But by outsourcing your archiving needs you're actually freeing up your IT resources so you can focus on other more strategic initiatives." He recommends Microsoft Exchange Hosted Archive as a hosted option, which can help generate extra cost savings in terms of bandwidth by pairing it with Exchange Hosted Filtering. The reasons is that since your e-mail stream is filtered for spam and viruses and only clean e-mail gets through to your business, while a copy of each message is sent to the hosted archive repository.

Tulloch adds that the Microsoft Exchange Hosted Archive service also includes a permissions infrastructure that allows different users to have varying levels of access to the archived data. 'That's important for most businesses as you don't want just anyone in your company to have access to your history.'

Disadvantages of e-mail backup systems

No system of e-mail archiving is perfect. And even when in place, there are always risks involved whether a business is backing up e-mail in-house or to an off-site provider.

In the case of in-house e-mail archiving, Goouci-Tero says that issues such as system failure or just an old-fashioned tearing of tape can result in a lost e-mail. On-site e-mail storage could also require additional training and support, but this could still be done by a part-time or contracted IT manager.

Outsourcing of the archiving will allow you to forego those expenses, but this brings up the issue of security. 'Trust is a big issue of course, and different businesses will have different concerns around whether outsourcing is the way to go or not,' says Tulloch.

What works best for archiving your e-mail

Does hosting the archives on-site make sense, or can your small business look to outsource all of your digital communication? To help you decide, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Is company or federal regulation required for the archiving of industry communication?
  • What types and how much of e-mail communication should be backed up?
  • Does this include e-mail from support staff, or just those with financial clients or others dealing with business arrangements?
  • Do you have the support personal and space for an additional server?

E-mail archival is only as good as the system. The key to its success is that people use it. If this isn't regularly backed up and maintained, either in-house or off-site, then it's just money wasted. For it to work, the system must be simple and reliable.

'The threat of litigation is always hanging over businesses nowadays,' says Tulloch, 'and it's just not acceptable to say ‘Oops, sorry we don't have that information' when you get called upon to respond to a request for evidence in a trial or lawsuit.'

SIDEBAR: E-Mail Archiving Products to Watch

Fort Knox secure, Fortiva.com, provides on-demand e-mail archiving solutions.

The GFI Mail Archive is an affordable management solution that requires little administrative effort to store, back-up and retrieve archived communications including mailbox quotas on Microsoft Exchange server.

The Athena Archiver addresses corporate and federal compliance, as well as policy-based corporate governance needs.